View Full Version : Just bought a vintage vega tenor banjo

Jul-16-2008, 10:17am
Well Iíve gone and joined the Dark SideÖ..I bought a banjo. #Now the good news is that itís a 17 fret tenor banjo that Iíll tune GDAE. #So itís not as bad as it could be! #

I acquired a Vega Little Wonder from our favorite auction site. #It should be here in about a week. #It looks to be in pretty decent shape but of course the seller wasnít instrument savvy so weíll see when it gets here. #I know itís going to need a good cleaning and probably a set up. #But here are the questions I have:

1) How will I know if it needs a new head? #If it does, where do you buy them? #And I understand there are plastic and hide heads? #Which one works better?

2) Based on other discussions Iíve read, Iím planning on ordering some octave mandolin strings for it. #The gauges are 12, 22, 32 and 46. #Is that the general consensus? #The Irish Tenor strings that they sell seem awfully light for an instrument with a scale length this long.

3) It has the original tuners. #Assuming they are in good working condition, is there any reason to change them?

4) It doesn't come with a case. I'm thinking a gig bag will be sufficient to carry it around in. Can you recommend one that works well for this size of a banjo?

5) Is there anything else I need to think about doing to get it functional and playable?

Iíve been toying with the idea of getting an octave mandolin or tenor banjo for a while now. #Iím definitely excited to have a new voice to try out. #Iíll have to learn some more Irish tunes so I can put it to good use at our local session. #But Iím also planning on trying it out at some Old Time jams and seeing how it works. #Thanks for any info!!

Jul-16-2008, 12:57pm
(a) #You "need" a new head if the old one is ripped/torn or if it can't be tightened to the point where the instrument is responsive. #The aesthetic of replacing heads differs depending on how "ringing" a sound you want from your banjo. #Some bluegrass players replace a head every couple of years; on the other hand, I've had the same head on my old Vega Pete Seeger model for 30+ years.

(b) #Very few people use skin heads any more; they're a PITA to keep tensioned properly. #There are "synthetic" skin-like heads ("Fyberskyn" and "Renaissance" are two of Remo's brand-name versions) that work well and are much more user-friendly. #A lot of Irish Tenor Banjo players like the more "cutting" sound that comes from a mylar head; others prefer the sound of skin (or its modern variants). #

(c ) I sometimes buy my heads from Elderly or Janet Davis Music, but generally I shop at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, CA, who have been looking after my instruments for years. #The real problem with a "non-standard"-sized head is getting one that fits properly, since a lot of older heads/rims/tone rings are not perfectly round. #Measure across the head in a bunch of different directions, and ask for one that "averages out" across the various measurements. #

(d)#As long as the original tuners work well, there's no reason to change them. #Some of the older tuners are not particularly sensitive (meaning that a slight adjustment of the tuner causes the pitch of the string to vary significantly), and some folks opt for more "precise" geared tuners. #If you decide to go that way, you may have to ream out the holes in the peghead to accomodate the new tuners.

(e) #Lots of folks make banjo gig bags. #I personally recommend hardshell cases for all acoustic instruments; Musician's Friend sells a good inexpensive one: #

http://www.musiciansfriend.com/product....=540990 (http://www.musiciansfriend.com/product/Musicians-Gear-Deluxe-Hardshell-Banjo-Case?sku=540990)


Most of the cases you'll run across are for bluegrass banjos with resonators. #Some Little Wonders I've seen have resonators, most don't. #If not, you'll either need to pad the inside of the case somehow or get a case specially made for an open-back banjo.

(f) #Setting up a banjo for optimal playability is a bit of an art. #Check out the following website:


And this one:


Roger Siminoff's book is great:


Caveat: #much of the discussion about set-up is generic (in particular, the advice about making sure that the neck is well-fitted to the pot), but some of it is specifically directed toward Gibson Mastertone-style "bluegrass" banjos, which are a different kettle of fish from your Little Wonder. #

In particular, learning how to adjust/set up a dowel-rod-style instrument like the Vega is more a matter of woodworking skills and less a matter of adjusting metal-to-metal fittings than it is with a "bluegrass"-style instrument with metal "coordinator rods."

(g) #A GDAE-tuned tenor banjo is a very different instrument from the traditional clawhammer-style five-string banjo used in most of the "old time" jam sessions I attend: #they're tuned differently, and played very differently. #Not trying to discourage you, but I rarely see tenors at "old time" sessions.

(h) #Have fun! #TBs are addicting (though not as much as OMs, IMHO).

Ted Eschliman
Jul-16-2008, 2:12pm
Yes, I'm out of the closet now; I too, am the recent owner of a tenor banjo...

The bad thing about banjo cases (actually 5-string bags, too) is the excess room in the top. With a gig bag, you'll have serious neck flop, kind of like a Labrador carrying a wounded goose. I know of two bags that work well, but availability is tougher this side of the Atlantic. Tribal Planet makes a mandola/tenor banjo that will probably work; these seem to be easier to get in the UK. (Fender US no longer distributes these, but D'andrea recently aquired the line.) What I like best is the Warwick Rockbag that came with my Gypsy's Music Octave mandolin. This is a very solid bag, although that may sound a bit oxymoronic it works well for my 17" Deering "Goodtime Series" tenor. Very nice fit and convenient for carting across town.

Maybe someone else can direct us to a US outlet for these. I'm taking a similar path soon, upgrading the head, maybe a new tailpiece, and just this morning discovered a great mic for stage, the Audio Technica ATM350 (http://www.audio-technica.com/cms/resource_library/literature/110eff47cc3b3a4c/atm350_ss_e.pdf). Clamps conveniently on the claw receivers.

laddy jota
Jul-16-2008, 2:23pm
I have a nice Bacon TB. I usualy tune it ADGC, and play it mandola style. The best thing about these is that you can get them so cheap. The best value in vintage instruments.

Jul-16-2008, 2:52pm
Elderly has a nice gigbag from Gold Tone. #And they also have several hard case options for around $100. #I'll probably give the gigbag a try...
And they have a nice selection of banjo heads just in case I need to replace the one that's on it.

Celtic Saguaro
Jul-16-2008, 5:28pm
My 17-fretter works fine with Irish tenor banjo strings. Banjos aren't designed to be used with extra heavy strings at high tension, so I would be careful about trying to use OM strings.

Charles E.
Jul-16-2008, 7:13pm
I play a 1923 gibson trap door tenor and recently replaced the old mylar head with a new Remo Elete head. I like it alot ( a friend photographed the process and posted on the Banjo Hangout web site ). If you go to festivals you will want a good gig bag with backpack style straps and a good size pocket for stuff. It really makes getting around ALOT easier. The tenor banjo is a great instrument for old time music (it was used quite a bit in string bands from the 20's and 30's) it fits in nicely between the fiddles and guitar and compliments the clawhammer banjo. It is a wonderfull rhythm instrument ( in a style I call whacka-whacka ) and can really drive a tune.
Good luck and have fun!


fred d
Jul-17-2008, 6:41am
http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif Welcome to the dark side Janet Davis also has bags from Gold Tone about $60?? I use E 10 A 20 D 30 ,G 45 almost sounds like a bass mandolin and as you are aware pick size does matter Irish playing is a lot of fun good luck with your new toy ps Gryphon and Janet Davis have always been helpfull when I have called

Jul-17-2008, 7:27am
Picks....that's another good topic. I generally play mandolin with a 1-1.5mm Tortis or Wegen mando pick. I'm assuming a thinner, less rigid pick is the way to go for tenor banjo?

steve V. johnson
Jul-17-2008, 1:08pm
Hey Shaun,

I've just been thru this! I got a banjo as a gift for my fiddler pal, TJ Hull, and it turned out it needed some upgrading. There is a thread on that in this forum, Look for Tenor Banjo - May Bell Queen, just a little ways down the list. This banjo is a 19-fret tenor and I've set it up for playing Irish tunes, tuned GDAE. We've been over quite a bit of what you ask, and here's a banjo setup thread that Mike Keyes started on the Banjo Hangout website.


Mike Keyes has been a splendid help to me with this banjo, and the Hangout is a site similarly nice to the Cafe. Folks there have been very helpful
as well.

I chose to replace the original friction tuners with a basic "Planetary" set that I got from StewartMacDonald online, and the MBQ is now much easier to tune and to keep in tune. The tuners were the original 'problem' for TJ. Even he, a classically trained violinist, was frustrated with trying to use the original ones. Of course, YMMV, and I know of others who have pre-WWII tenor banjos whose tuners are perfectly usable.

The MBQ has its original hide head and I'm not going to fix it since it ain't broke. I think that there is a bit in the setup thread about the different
sounds of different head materials. Angela Carberry, a fantastic Irish tenor banjo player, uses a transparent head, John Carty uses a hide head. I expect that there's a lot to learn about that...

The MBQ also has its original hard case, and it does flop around in it, so I went to the dollar store and got a pair of nice new all-cotton hand towels and I put one behind the headstock and the other over the head and I can fold them to just fill the space without pressing on the banjo, so that seems a nice fix.

String gauges, etc... I think are all in the MBQ thread or set-up thread at the Hangout.

I'm going to hand this one back to TJ next week when we visit him in Milwaukee, but I've been having fun with it, so there may be another
one in my future... who knows... ?

All the best,


Jul-17-2008, 1:16pm
Gee, Shaun, this makes several of us in the HRME mando-banjo owners... now if Bucket would only come back... we'd be 4 or more. Congratulations on the new toy! Can't wait to see/hear it:D

Celtic Saguaro
Jul-17-2008, 5:39pm
Picks for a tenor banjo? Indeed, go light. I use a Dunlop nylon .60 mm.

Jul-21-2008, 3:42pm
I have a little more on playing and setting up an Irish tenor banjo on My Webpage (http://www.mikekeyes.com) that might help.

I have a Little Wonder which retains its skin head. Depending on where you live, one of the best ways to set it up is to determine the optimal head tension and then back off about 20% (I know, that is very subjective) and let your body heat tense it up as you play. You will have to re-tune for a while but it will eventually set up.

I play my tenor banjo in an old time band. It works out very well and I can even play it with the five string as they have very different timbres and complement each other. ( I just got a 4 string cello banjo and we will see how that goes.) I generally use my LW as the skin head has a great sound. If you look at pictures of the 20's and 30's string bands, you will find tenor banjos in them, especially the flat land bands. Some people's idea of an old time string band is very narrow. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Eddie Sheehy
Jul-21-2008, 10:34pm
I've left the dark side. I sold my Gretsh Tenor Broadkaster. I'll go no more a rovin'.

Jul-27-2008, 12:45pm
Thanks for all the advice. Once I get it in hand and set up, I'll respond with some pics and a review

Ted Eschliman
Aug-06-2008, 5:22pm
I'm really enjoying a few upgrades on my Deering Goodtime (http://www.deeringbanjos.com/Goodtime/) 17 fret tenor banjo. I'm sticking with the traditional CGDA tuning, and found I really like using the D'addario EXP74 (coated) mandolin strings, 11, 15, 26, 40. Sure you get a spare set when you purchase that, but I love the phos bronze sound and the brass-plated plain strings (reddish color) help warm it up. I've also changed out the head for a Fibreskyn III, and have been thoroughly charmed by its somewhat oxymoronic warm banjo sound.

Mike, you'll have to let me know if I'm commiting sacrilege, but I love playing classical and jazz on this critter.

Aug-06-2008, 6:35pm
Well I finally got mine. The head is in great shape. But the tuners are all but rusted solid and it needs a new bridge. I know a guy that does great banjo work so I'm going to take it to him and let him do a little rehab. Overall though, it is a nice instrument and should be a lot of fun once it's ready to play

Aug-07-2008, 11:41am

Tenor banjos have been used for jazz for decades. In fact, the fifths tuning makes the tenor banjo a good instrument for a lot of music styles. In your case it would probably be sacrilege if you did not play jazz. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

In another thread in this forum I outline my experience with the cello banjo (tuned CGDA.) I am finding all sorts of musical uses for it that transcend my usual OT, BG, and ITM. I even have a little Rock and Roll on one of my youtube offerings (very little I might add.)

Aug-18-2008, 10:22am
Well I finally got around to getting the banjo set up and playable. Although I have decided that I need some new tuners for it. The original ones are just too old and rusty. And the gear ratio is horrible.

As far as sound, I'm not too sure I'm in love with it just yet. I actually prefer the tone of a friends Gold Tone Irish tenor to this old Vega. Maybe I need a new head? We'll see how it goes....

fred d
Sep-15-2008, 1:06pm
I put guitar nylons on last week and really enjoy the mellow sound a little deeper than before

Oct-05-2008, 8:34am
Hey Shaun, This is probably old news now, but I have a Gold Tone tenor banjo gig bag as well for my 17-fret Vega Tubaphone with large pot, and it fits just right, if not a bit snug in the neck -- 'sure beats carrying the old case around to jams! But it doesn't have backpack straps, which could be useful. I also have a Gold Tone IT250R, resonator version, but I like the Vega sound better and hardly play the GT now. It may simply be a matter of string gauge and setup.

Oct-06-2008, 12:41pm
I did get a Gold Tone gig bag for it. Works perfectly! I still haven't had a professional set up and new tuners installed yet. I've been so busy lately I just haven't had time to get it out to the repair guy. It is a fun diversion from the mandolin though.

Oct-16-2008, 1:21pm
Indeed, it is!! I just got a 17-fret Deering Deluxe IT -- amazingly bright sound, but taking awhile to get used to as quite different from the old Vega. (Now, if I just had more time for the mandolin to ...)